Can Dreams Be Sinful?

Can Dreams Be Sinful? May 3, 2024

In contemporary Christianity the claim is often made that only behaviors are sinful. However, the idea that only external acts can be sinful, or immoral or transgressive, is a very modern idea. It is certainly not one the biblical authors or the early Church Fathers would have endorsed, let alone Jesus (Matt 5:21-30). In fact, one Church Father, Clement of Alexandria, argued that even our dreams could be sinful. While some modern Christians may balk at the thought of involuntary images like dreams being sinful, one necessary task of every mindful believer is to be able to step outside of his or her cultural moment and try to see things from a different perspective, be that a perspective from another contemporary culture or from a past culture like that of Clement.

Clement of Alexandria on Dreams

Before looking at Clement’s comments on dreams, we need to understand what Clement is saying about the Christian life more generally. For Clement, the goal of the Christian is to become holy–to, in fact, become perfect. Thus, Clement takes Christ’s own words, “to be perfect as the Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48) quite seriously, and, quite literally.  As such, Clement can say this about the true believer, who he refers to as the genuine “Gnostic” (this is not to be confused with the gnostic heretics, like Basilides or Valentinus, who Clement and other Fathers refuted in their falsehoods. Clement is trying to reappropriate the term in his writings, using it for orthodox purposes).

To him the flesh is dead; but he himself lives alone, having consecrated the sepulchre [of the body] into a holy temple to the Lord, having turned towards God the old sinful soul.

Clement, Stromata Book IV.22

For Clement, it is true knowledge of God that leads to virtue, and virtue that perfects the soul. A perfectly virtuous soul, as such, can attain, through participation in God’s grace, a state of being holy–i.e., of being utterly devoid of sin. This may not occur in this lifetime, but it is nevertheless the goal of the pursuit of knowledge which “instructs the entire creation to honor God.”

Since the whole of creation is meant for redemption (Rom 8:18-30) and as the human person is the epitome of creation, so the whole of the human person is meant for perfect redemption in Christ. If the whole of the person is to be redeemed and destined for glory, then there is no part of the person that can remain in sin or corruption. This applies equally to the body and the mind, or soul. But, if it applies to the mind, then it applies to the thoughts of the mind as well.

And this is where the holistic view of the person as a new creation in Christ takes into account all the thoughts and images that occur in the mind, even the ones that seem involuntary. How could it not, since every thought, word and deed are known to God (Gen 6:5; Matt 9:4; Luke 2:34-35; Rom 2:16) and most are even known to ourselves–regardless of the fact that we rarely admit to ourselves, let alone others, the true nature of those thoughts.

As such, Clement puts forth the following:

And if such a one teaches to love God, he will not hold virtue as a thing to be lost in any case, either awake or in a dream, or in any vision; since the habit never goes out of itself by falling from being a habit. Whether, then, knowledge be said to be habit or disposition; on account of diverse sentiments never obtaining access, the guiding faculty, remaining unaltered, admits no alteration of appearances by framing in dreams visionary conceptions out of its movements by day. Wherefore also the Lord enjoins “to watch,” so that our soul may never be perturbed with passion, even in dreams; but also to keep the life of the night pure and stainless, as if spent in the day. For assimilation to God, as far as we can, is preserving the mind in its relation to the same things. And this is the relation of mind as mind.

Clement, Stromata IV.22

The mind of the true believer, Clement’s “Gnostic,” is so habituated toward the good, toward God, that in time his habits of the mind are so formed that even in sleeping his soul does not allow for any evil thought to emerge. Even the “life of the night” remains “pure and stainless” and the soul at rest is “never perturbed with passion.”

However, this task for many modern Christians seems not only insurmountable, but even psychologically harmful. Many modern people, ensconced in a therapeutic society, will immediately conjure up desperate memories of trying, through sheer willpower, to make the bad thoughts go away. This dynamic, especially poignant for young men who experience an almost endless stream of bad sexual thoughts (which, we might assume, Clement also has in mind), has, by and large, been treated as anathema by modern psychologists, psychiatrist and, in general, our therapeutic culture. Nevertheless, this is where the Christ follower must step outside of the cultural milieu in which they live and, at least, attempt to look more objectively, and biblically, at the phenomenon.

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Are Thoughts and Dreams Sinful?

Dreams and The Involuntary Nature of Beliefs

In a classic essay on the nature of belief, “Religious Experience and Religious Belief” (1992), William Alston highlights the involuntary nature of beliefs as opposed to the voluntary nature of belief forming practices. For Alston, and other involuntarists about beliefs, one cannot simply, by sheer act of the will, choose to believe or not believe some proposition “x.” With regard to epistemic obligations then, one does not have any obligation to believe something directly, since one has no direct control over their beliefs. However, one may have an intellectual obligation to embark on a journey of belief formation, since that journey would be voluntary, meaning, “under one’s direct control.”

For example, if I did not believe the Holocaust happened, I could not simply wake up tomorrow morning and choose to believe the Holocaust really did happen (one must assume, in this case, that I have very little historical knowledge). I would, in that sense, not have an obligation to believe “the Holocaust really happened.” However, given the seriousness of the claim, I would be obligated to go on a journey of discovery to see if the claim had validity. This “belief forming process,” unlike the discrete belief itself, would be under my “direct voluntary control.” (Alston, in Geivett and Sweetman, 296). Thus, as I choose to look at the evidence and arguments for the reality of the Holocaust, I am being intellectually responsible. When I come to see the Holocaust really did happen, and that it was awful, then I develop a new, justified belief. Moreover, the process of belief formation is a justified process, assuming I did everything in my power to see it through.

Alston puts it this way:

If belief is under direct voluntary control, we may think of intellectual obligations as attaching directly to believing….But if, as it seems to me, belief is not, in general, under voluntary control, obligations cannot attach directly to believing. However, I do have voluntary control over moves that can influence a particular belief formation, e.g., looking for more evidence, and moves that can affect my general belief-forming habits or tendencies, e.g., training myself to be more critical of testimony. If we think of intellectual obligations as attaching to activities that are designed to influence belief formation, we may say that a certain epistemic practice is normatively justified, provided it is not the case that the practitioner would not have engaged in it had he satisfied intellectual obligations to engage in activities designed to inhibit it. In other words, the practice is justified if and only if the practitioner did not fail to satisfy an obligation to inhibit it.

Alston, “Religious Experience and Religious Belief” in Contemporary Perspectives on Religous

Nota Bene: Regarding the Holocaust, this may be an epistemic journey many protestors on our college campuses today may want to consider undergoing. But I digress.

The analogy here is between practices that lead to the formation of beliefs and practices that lead to the formation of certain thoughts, and, to the elimination of other thoughts. For us, dreams may appear involuntary and, as such, not directly under our control. However, there can be practices we undertake, journeys of spiritual discipline we embark upon, that gradually change our cognitive structures, i.e., our soul, over time. And, in changing those structures, these habits or practices bring formerly involuntary thoughts under control, not directly through a sheer act of the will, but indirectly through a process. The result is what Clement argues is our goal, namely, purity of thought:

Now purity is to think holy thoughts.

Clement, Stromata IV.22

Paul says basically the same in various places regarding the life of the mind. Here are two examples:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Phil 4:8

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

Rom 8:5-6

Holiness and The Process of Sanctification

The journey toward a pure heart is not easy. As such, I would not want anyone to consider dreams of a sordid or sinful nature to be utterly representative of the person having them. However, the guilt and shame dynamic that is built into our conscience is there for a reason (Rom 2:12-16). Yes, our dreams can be sinful, our thoughts ungodly and our imaginations, as involuntary as they often may appear, corrupt and even damning. However, if we are to take seriously Christ’s command to “be perfect” then no area of our person can remain imperfect. Even the Jewish Code of Law, the Shulchan Arukh, alludes to the problem of involuntary, sinful thoughts (which, of course is rooted in Torah, see Leviticus 4), especially of a sexual nature:

It is forbidden for a man intentionally make himself have an erection or to cause himself to think about sex. Rather if he thinks about sex he should remove himself from vain things and go to the words of Torah which is like a beloved doe and a graceful deer. Therefore it is forbidden for someone to sleep on their back with his face up, rather he should lean to the side so that he doesn’t come to have an erection.

Shulchan Arukh, Even HaEzer 23

The assumption here is that sleeping on one’s back may invite unintended sexual thoughts. As such, a practice is encouraged, namely, sleeping on one’s side.

However, for the Christian, the key to the entire project of holiness, or Christ-likeness, is not just about forming practices. It is our utter reliance on God’s grace and His love as we go about participating in and with His Spirit that matters most. It is our participation in God’s love that motivates us to practice. And so we can avoid the danger of legalism, since what we do we do out of love.

Yet, even then, we understand that God is free to relieve us from all evil thoughts and images, even those that occur nocturnally; or to not; or to relieve us of those things in one part, but perhaps not in another and that for good reason (2 Cor 12:1-10). But that God desires us to participate in the process of becoming holy, a process which can, over time, lead to greater and greater control of our passions, is most definitely the case. As such, we should come to see that dreams can be sinful, even if involuntary, and desire to overcome the sinful images that occur in dreams via a process of participation in the life of Christ, through the power of the Spirit.

About Anthony Costello
Anthony Costello is an author and a theologian. He has a BA in German from the University of Notre Dame (1997), an MA in Apologetics (2016) and MA in Theology (2018) from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He has published articles in academic journals such as Luther Rice Journal of Christian Studies and the Journal of Christian Legal Thought. In addition, Anthony has made chapter contributions to Evidence that Demands a Verdict, edited by Josh and Sean McDowell and has published several articles for magazines such as Touchstone and made online contributions to The Christian Post and Patheos. Anthony is a US Army Veteran, former 82D Airborne paratrooper and OEF veteran. You can read more about the author here.
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